‘Mother Play’ Broadway Review: Jessica Lange and Jim Parsons Battle for the Soul of a Family

Paula Vogel’s latest work delivers all the humor and poignancy of a Tennessee Williams classic

Jim Parsons and Jessica Lange Mother Play
Jim Parsons and Jessica Lange in "Mother Play" (Credit: Joan Marcus)

There’s a trend in the theater to take classic plays, cut them in half and add a lot of modern jargon to make them digestible to today’s audience. Less common is what Woody Allen has done in the movies with “Blue Jasmine” and “Match Point.” Those two films can be viewed as effective rewrites and updates of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “A Place in the Sun.” (Yes, I continue to watch and enjoy Woody Allen movies.)

Paula Vogel does something similar but more radical with her latest work, “Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions,” which had its world premiere Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theater. The family unit of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” appears here, but the Gentleman Caller never shows up despite the title character’s best efforts to make him appear.

As the play’s full title would suggest, “Mother Play” does not take place over the period of a few days but rather a few decades as this family of three moves in and out of several apartments. Vogel shows us what might have happened to Amanda, Tom and Laura Wingfield after the curtain falls in “The Glass Menagerie” — and if they’d lived in Washington, D.C., and if they’d lived in a later time frame (1964 to the 21st century) and if Tom returned. And that’s not the only “if.” Phyllis (Jessica Lange), the mother in Vogel’s play, would no doubt prefer that her daughter, Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger), had Laura’s physical challenge over the one this young woman faces.

Most similar between “Mother Play” and “The Glass Menagerie” are the ways in which Phyllis and Amanda batter their respective sons, Carl (Jim Parsons) and Tom, about where they go at night. Since it’s the late 1960s and beyond in “Mother Play,” Phyllis doesn’t hold back to express her revulsion, using just about every gay slur there is in Webster’s.

“Mother Play” also recalls another theater classic that never gets revived these days, and for good reason. In Robert Anderson’s 1953 drama “Tea and Sympathy,” a young college student suspected of being gay asks a friend to show him how to walk like a real man. Vogel turns that notoriously homophobic scene inside out when Carl shows his sister how to walk like a man to protect herself from unwanted sexual advances. Later, Phyllis, aghast at her daughter’s appearance, shows Martha how to walk like a real woman.

“Mother Play” marks Lange’s fourth engagement on Broadway but the first time she has originated a role there. In its excellence, her work in “Mother Play” recalls what she did on stage as Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” in 2016. The only difference is that Vogel gives Lange a few more notes to explore, most of them above the staff in the comic stratosphere. Before this review makes “Mother Play” sound like a dirge, it is really a very funny play. When Martha doesn’t accept Phyllis’ attempt to make amends, Carl cautions, “Don’t gnaw on the olive branch!”

Parsons clearly enjoys playing these flamboyant gay characters. Perhaps he’s a little too flamboyant here. We’ve already seen him do the Cio-Cio-San kimono scene in Ryan Murphy’s soporific “Hollywood” TV series.

Martha is the far less splashy role, and yet it is Keenan-Bolger who knits this narrative together with the greatest finesse. She goes from adolescent to middle-age, from child to caretaker, from naïve to bitter to courageous. Keenan-Bolger is simply brilliant.

Tina Landau directs. Her sure hand navigates the play’s many moods — hilarious one moment, tragic the next.


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